Graying hair coiffed, medals on display and sitting with military poise, they readied themselves onstage. They greeted one another like old friends: Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force veterans sitting side by side, preparing to share war stories.
But Friday, it was no old boys club.
Female veterans of the Korean War were being honored by the Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee. More than a dozen women who had served during the war joined family, friends and U.S. and Korean military personnel at a panel discussion and reception held at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Former 1st Lt. Eleanor Porter, a Springfield resident, was among those honored. A 1951 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, Porter decided she wanted to work with people instead of testing water for the city of Providence. She joined the all-officer Women’s Medical Specialist Corps in 1952 as a physical therapist.
Porter served at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and later in Colorado, working in wards with burn patients and in gyms, helping amputees strengthen their muscles by using resistance mats.
“You don’t show that you’re upset with what you see,” Porter said.“You shudder a little inside, but you learn that you don’t let your feelings show with the patients because they need to have someone who is not going to break down.”
The successes were what made the work worthwhile. “When the amputees first get up on new legs and walk, you know you’ve done something to help somebody,” Porter said.
Some cases were emotional and disturbing, Porter said: a man who lost his eyes; a polio patient only treatable through the portholes of his iron lung; a soldier suddenly living with neither a leg nor a hip.
Soldiers faced with the traumas of amputation used camaraderie and laughter to cope.
“They never felt sorry for themselves,” Porter said. “They always kidded each other and gave each other, ‘Oh, come on, you can do this,’ or ‘Put your own pants on,’ or something like that when someone had new legs and had trouble putting their trousers on.”
In January 1953, one patient caught the young woman’s eye — 2nd Lt. Tom Porter. Tom lost both legs in Korea and met Eleanor during his rehabilitation at Fort Sam Houston.
“He was a flirt,” Eleanor said. “I’d be bandaging him and he’d grab my hands, and I’d say, ‘You’re going to get me in trouble!’ ”
They began dating, and in March 1954 the two were married.
Fifty years and four children later, the Porters read of a young amputee wounded in Iraq and saw an opportunity to help. Through the Amputee Coalition of America, the amputee-therapist duo began visiting soldiers at what was then the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“All we have to do is walk in the room, and they look at my husband — he’s 83 and walks beautifully — and they see a man walking in and they can’t tell he’s an amputee,” Eleanor Porter said. “When they find out he is, they think, ‘Well, if that old geezer can do it, so can I.’ ”
She said their seven years of working with more than 1,000 amputees and their families brought them purpose and dear friends. The Porters have been invited to weddings, had children named after them and were godparents to one baptized amputee.
The biggest lesson for everyone, she said, is that life continues.
“You accept what’s happened and go on from there,” she said. “You make a life for yourself.” The amputees she befriended and kept up with “went on and had a life and had families. My husband is that way, and I am, too. . . . That’s our philosophy.”
For these veterans, life has gone on, and the committee wants to ensure that their service is not overlooked. Each of the program’s armed forces speakers praised the women for their work.
“We could not do what we do without the trail you set for us,” Army Nurse Corps Historian Lt. Col. Nancy Cantrell told them.